“My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Dragons. They’re one of the most recognizable creatures in all of the world’s oldest myths and legends. Indeed, dragons were birthed in the minds of men all across the globe at seemingly different origin points and times. Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Babylonian, Roman, Christian, and even Mesoamerican cultures all spawned their own versions of these serpent-like monsters. The earliest possible facsimile of a dragon could have been spawned from “the skeletal remains of dinosaurs” or the common variety snakes. (Maré 2006) Early on in the European world that’s really all “dragons” were, snakes. Dragons were names given to ordinary animals, evidenced by the fact that the Greek word for snake is drakon. However, the lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown or possibly even liberties in folklore molded the serpent into a more fantastical being. “Western dragon lore… has its origins in the Babylonian myth in which Tiamat was the mother of all dragons and the daughter of primordial chaos.” (Maré 2006)
Different cultures of the world molded the very concept of dragons. The serpent was the predecessor to the dragon, and thus the dragon inherited its associations. In Christian belief, the serpent was the origin of temptation and sin in mankind. Given that dragons came from serpents, they also became known as embodiments of sin and evil. Christian stories involving dragons usually made them the villain. They existed only as a monster to be killed by the hero. One of the most famous of these stories, Saint George and the Dragon, portrays its dragon as a terror to be “appeased by offerings of two sheep a day, then children and young people.” The dragon came to its demise when it demanded the princess as an offering, and the hero St. George slew him and used his remains as a prize and a means to restore the land. This story would be alien to the Chinese/Japanese depictions of dragons. In their folklore, dragons were generally more benevolent beings with divinity and magical powers, who even had the ability to take the form of man. (Cheetham 2014) Dragons were intimately connected to nature and the elements. These Oriental dragons eventually influenced Western imaginings of dragons and gave new forms to their literature and myth. They became what a story needed them for, be it a solitary creature hoarding treasure of man with hostility, or a benign demigod who embodies the land it rules over. The concept of dragons evolved with people’s needs and desires. It follows the first of Cohen’s Monster Theses: The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body. “The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment…” (Cohen 1996) Each individual culture molded the dragon to its own desires and fears, be it Christian fear or Chinese mysticism.
Just as how the dragon is used for different purposes in each culture, it appears wildly different in each depiction. The Western depiction of a dragon usually follows the image of “an enormous, winged serpent-like beast, half reptile, half mammal. It has a scaly body and a powerful tail, and is four-legged like a crocodile, with protruding teeth and eyes, sharp claws and the capacity to exhale fire or noxious gases.” (Maré 2006) Images of the dragons in Christian stories appears mostly serpent-like, with attached wings, but some can have the head of a bird and lion-like forelimbs. On the other side, Asian dragons are also depicted as chimerical creatures with a body like a snake, “scales of a carp, tail of a whale, antlers of a stag, face of a camel, talons of eagles, ears of a bull, feet of a tiger, and the eyes of a (dragon) lobster.” (“Chinese Dragon”) Even the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl bears the appearance of a serpent with feathered wings. Each of the different dragon influences looks starkly different from each other, lending credence to Cohen’s third thesis: The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis. None of the dragons neatly fall into the visual representation as those of different cultures. Given the more modern interpretations of dragons, they have become even more vastly varied in size and construction.
Perhaps one of the most well-regarded, worldbuilding writers of fantasy is a man who goes by J.R.R. Tolkien, and he created a dragon of his own, the legendary dragon Smaug. Smaug is a colossal red dragon depicted with either wings on the back or attached to the arms. He is a being of absolute destructive power with “wings like a hurricane” and flame breath that raze the countryside. His hide is nearly impenetrable, save for a single crevasse on his jewel-encrusted belly created by a previous struggle. Even amongst his own kind, he is regarded as one of the most powerful dragons in the world. Inspired by European dragons, Smaug is a terrible creature that embodies the vices of greed and wrath. He, on his own, heard of the great wealth of the Dwarven kingdom and proceeded to ravage the land and take its riches and their home for himself. As a dragon, he has no use for riches other than pure vanity and greed. The most he uses them for is as bedding in his lair, which is now just dwarven ruins. Smaug causes grief and misery for thousands and leaves the dwarves bitter for revenge. They eventually follow through with a plan to retrieve what’s theirs and the events of The Hobbit unfold.
In its events, depending on the adaptation, Smaug is vehemently defensive of his hoard and turns away any who dare approach him. The main character of the story, Bilbo, infiltrates Smaug’s lair and encounters him, waking from his slumber. Their ensuing exchange highlight Smaug’s anger, but also his silver tongue. He’s manipulative, attempting to convince Bilbo of betraying his companions and belittling him at every chance, all while seeking him out, to incinerate the hobbit. In the end, however, Smaug’s haughtiness, hubris, and wickedness betray him in the end as he reveals his one weakness to Bilbo, the bare spot on his underside. With this information in hand, Bilbo escapes sharing the intel with others. Smaug, seeking him out, falls into a trap and becomes enraged. He soars away furious and goes to take his wrath out on Laketown. He’s blinded by his anger, flabbergasted at the notion of being tricked by a morsel he’s never even heard and fails to realize his mistake. Without any time to waste, an arrow is loosed towards his underside as he’s in flight, and it pierces his weak point. Smaug plummets to his death, ended by his own anger. As a depiction of a dragon, Smaug takes most of his inspiration from the European side, with his general shape being a more modern depiction. His wickedness and silver tongue are very much akin to the Christian serpents, with his evil nature and death to a hero calling back to that. Yet Smaug transcended his influences and became an even more influential monster for many dragons to come. His greediness and intelligence became archetypes for the quadrupedal dragons to come, and even then, those aspects he gave to dragons changed as well.
In stark contrast to dragons Smaug would inspire, a plucky new prospect would charge his way into pop-culture through a video game titled Spyro the Dragon. Much like his predecessor, Spyro is a dragon that goes out searching to horde treasure. Unlike Smaug, Spyro is diminutive in size and is an overall good-hearted person who helps those who call for his help, how heroic. Like Smaug, he is inspired by those Western dragons visually. He is a colorful, purple dragon with large cartoon eyes, thin wings, and a has a permeating grin that serves as his trademark. He is rather sociable, always accompanied by his best friend, a dragonfly, as well as several other dragons that raised him. Yes, he is, in fact, the spawn of flourishing races of dragons that mold and maintain their world, keeping the peace and culture. Each of them on their own is benevolent and very much talk and act like the human beings of the real world. Even more interesting is the fact that these dragons are the ones being antagonized.
In the events of the original title, a television broadcast about the prosperous dragon realms incited the ire of another monster named Gnasty Gnorc. He took out his frustrations on the dragons, encasing them in crystal, but missing the smallest of them. It then becomes Spyro’s mission, as the hero, to free the captured dragons and reclaim the treasure stolen by Gnasty and his armies. If it isn’t apparent enough, this is a complete flipped script version of classic dragon stories. A dragon is a hero now, and he has to defeat his own metaphorical “dragon” and claim its treasure. This applies Cohen’s 6th Monster Theory: Fear of the Monster Is Really a Kind of Desire. “The co-optation of the monster into a symbol of the desirable is often accomplished through the neutralization of potentially threatening aspects with a liberal does of comedy…” (Cohen 1996) The story and characters of Spyro are inviting and welcoming, setting aside the negative aspects of dragons as well as making those aspects positive. The dragon’s trademark flame breath becomes a tool for the player and flight is available as well. Putting the player in the shoes of the dragon puts people at an understanding, and the benign nature of the world eases you in. This then leads into Cohen’s seventh thesis: The Monster Stand at the Threshold of Becoming. “This thing of darkness I acknowledge as mine.” (Cohen 1996) The perception of Western dragons through this story has become positive, much like the benevolent Eastern dragons that had influenced them.
Both Smaug and Spyro are interesting representations of dragons. Smaug is a constructive representation of Western dragons, reinforcing many previously established pillars of their mythos. He is an embodiment of sin, of evil. He is a true villain. On the flipside, Spyro is a deconstruction of those same dragons. His adventure puts a spin on the tale of dragons by putting him in the lead role and letting the audience take that adventure with him. All of the actions that were previously villainized are instead portrayed as fun. This duality between the interpretations of dragons reflects our own outlook, in this case, our view on riches. Smaug represents the avaricious side of us that hordes things we don’t need, while Spyro is the counter to that which strives for fulfillment through prosperity. Much like the difference between Western and Eastern dragons. They both are actually mirrors of our own actions.
Maré, Estelle Alma. “There Is No Hero without a Dragon: A Revisionist Interpretation of the Myth of St. George and the Dragon.” Religion & Theology, vol. 13, no. 2, June 2006, pp. 195–203. EBSCOhost, chaffey.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=23131251&site=ehost-live. Accessed 13 November 2018
Senter, Phil, et al. “Snake to Monster: Conrad Gessner’s Schlangenbuchand the Evolution of the Dragon in the Literature of Natural History.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 53, no. 1–4, Jan. 2016, pp. 67–124. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2979/jfolkrese.53.1-4.67. Accessed 13 November 2018
Cheetham, Dominic. “Dragons in English: The Great Change of the Late Nineteenth Century.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 45, no. 1, Mar. 2014, pp. 17–32. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10583-013-9201-z. Accessed 14 November 2018
Cohen, J Jeffrey. “Monster Culture (Seven Thesis)” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, 1996 pp. 3-20
“Chinese dragon.” Ohio River – New World Encyclopedia, Accessed 14 November 2018 http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Chinese_dragon
Tolkien, J R. R. The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again. ,1937. Print.
Jackson, Peter, et al. The Hobbit, the Desolation of Smaug. Warner Bros., 2013.
Spyro the Dragon. Playstation, Insomniac Games, 1998.
Spyro Reignited Trilogy. Playstation 4, Toys for Bob, 2018.